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Taking the Pulse of a Nation
Think Tank Transcripts: Pulse of the Nation
ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, arecipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide throughbiotechnology.
Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. With 17 months to gountil the 1996 elections, it's time to check the pulse of the public.To get a sense of what voters are thinking, I recently took part infocus group sessions composed of 19 men and women in Dayton, Ohio.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): The day when we tookprayer out of the schools, guns came in.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): You've got to have twoincomes in order to meet a standard of living that two or threepeople can live on.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): The government doesn'treally represent the people. They represent themselves.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): The moral decay, I meanit scares me.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): The welfare system, onething it does encourage is having more children because you get moremoney.
MR. WATTENBERG: Joining us to interpret these interviews areEverett Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for PublicOpinion Research; Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute;Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People andthe Press; and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Taking the pulse of the nation, this week on ''Think Tank.'
Let's start with some background. Pollster Fred Stieper (phonetic)arranged the focus groups. Panelists were limited to those with totalannual family income between $25,000 and $75,000, suburban residentsand no more education than a bachelor's degree.
In short, these are the kind of voters who swing elections inswing states, and these voters are very concerned about the state ofthe nation.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Seems like no one wantsto be responsible for anything anymore. It's always somebody else'sfault.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): I think the root ofmost of the problems, at least as far as I'm concerned, is the moralsituation in the country. You know, it all starts in the home,whether it's a single parent or not.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): You've got to have twoincomes in order to meet a standard of living that two or threepeople can live on. So our economy may be up in that we're moving alot more money, but everybody in the family has to work to do that.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Now I've heard in thepast, many of the black ministers have stood up in the pulpits andsaid that the day when we took prayer out of the schools, guns camein.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): I'm tired of all theentitlements. I'm tired of people taking handouts all the time andnot contributing to society.
MR. WATTENBERG: Everett Ladd of the Roper Center, how good atechnique and how useful is this focus group idea?
MR. LADD: They're great as a starting point, Ben, to get people tohave a chance to express in their own terms what's on their mind.They're treacherous, though, in some ways, you know. They're verysusceptible to leadership.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, we'll cancel this program then. Anybodyelse? Norman, what do you think of them?
MR. ORNSTEIN: Well, I think Everett is exactly right. What they --what a focus group can do is give you some texture. You don't want todo focus groups without also looking at the public opinion broadlybehind them, see how representative they are. And of course,questions can be shaped in a way that do frame what you get.
What we're getting here, though, I think is some expressions thatwe're going to find wide support for around the country.
MR. WATTENBERG: Andy Kohut.
MR. KOHUT: What they show is the flavor of public opinion ratherthan the extent of public opinion. And it's often very important tounderstand the flavor of opinion, not only the statistics, and that'swhat focus groups are good for.
MR. WATTENBERG: Karlyn.
MS. BOWMAN: I agree with that. I think that they add some flesh tothe bones of public opinion.
MR. WATTENBERG: The sense that we got when we filmed this, andagain you may accuse me of looking for it because I write about it,but that this really was, in terms of intensity, a values-drivenelectorate. I mean, they talked about the economy and they talkedsome even about foreign affairs, but the hot button issues, the onesthat were really intense, did come about on these so-called valuesissues. Is that what's going on?
MR. KOHUT: Well, I think that people are angry, and they're angryabout some very basic things. They're angry about their jobsituation, their earning situation, but they're also angry aboutcrime and upset about the pervasiveness of sex and violence in thepopular culture and the general moral decay. There are no shortage ofthings that people care about, that are very central to their beliefsabout citizenship, morality, and so on and so forth.
MR. ORNSTEIN: We have a stereotype, I think, that economics driveselections. I think right now values drives economics. What you getfrom these focus groups and what I get as I look at a lot of publicopinion results as well is that in the aftermath of the Cold War, inthe nature of the global economy, people are worried about the valuesin the country, but they also see that their own sense of values --if you work hard, you get rewarded for it, if you're loyal to theplace where you work, there's loyalty coming back down -- that thosebasic values have eroded.
Now you work hard, two people work hard, you're not doing as wellas you used to. The government's taking more from you, and it's goingto people who don't deserve it. And there's no sense of securityanymore. And that's reflected in a kind of anger about the people incharge.
MS. BOWMAN: A lot of people, I think, have wondered why PresidentClinton isn't getting much credit for an economy that's in the fourthyear of a recovery, and I think it is because a lot of the underlyingconcerns are about moral fiber. Do we have what it takes to compete,do we have what it takes to solve the problems of cities, of racialproblems? Do we have what it takes to deal with family problems? AndI think people are asking a lot of questions about those, and that'swhat you see in your focus groups.
MR. LADD: People who write about politics write about the economicdimension so much. The moral dimension is much more important most ofthe time. You can call it values or I choose to call it the moraldimension of public thinking. It has been the most importantthroughout most of American history. It's the most important now.It's the area where we think we're in trouble. We know we're doing afantastic job economically. We are. We're leading the world. Everyoneknows that. Finally Americans are a little more aware that we'releading Japan, too. MR. WATTENBERG: Give me, Everett, a 45-secondsummary of American history to back up that idea that most electionsare not economically driven.
MR. LADD: Well, from day one, Americans have been concerned aboutvalues issues. Slavery was obviously a large moral question. It wasthe predominant issue shaking this republic in the first 70 years.
As you move on, questions like what's going to happen to thecountry as it absorbs many more people, and will our values change?Will we hold to traditional values?
MR. WATTENBERG: On the immigrant --
MR. LADD: Yes.
MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah.
MR. LADD: A question like wet and dry was a moral issue, going farbeyond use of alcoholic beverages, a question of cultural values inthe United States. So it showed at every stage.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. The folks in Dayton had a lot to say about awhole range of issues. Let's take these one at a time. First thegovernment. Our focus groupies are not happy campers.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Right now I'm veryconfused with the government. All I see is parties fighting eachother. I don't see anything getting done, I don't care if it's aRepublican or a Democrat. They're so busy fighting each other, allthe issues are going by the side while they sit there and bicker.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): The government doesn'treally represent the people. They represent themselves.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): I just don't thinkthey're doing anything. I don't think it's -- I'm not sure if it'sone side or the other of the aisle. I feel like they -- somebody willcome up with an idea, and they'll squash it.
MR. WATTENBERG: Andy Kohut, at Times Mirror, do you pick up thissentiment of great cynicism about the government?
MR. KOHUT: Every year since 1987, we've done a national surveyabout values, and each year we've found more skepticism aboutpolitical -- the political process and more doubts about theeffectiveness of government action. It's one of the greatconsistencies in our surveys year after year.
MR. ORNSTEIN: If you notice, in the last Times Mirror survey, or acouple of surveys ago, we found that more Americans identify asindependents than as either Democrats or Republicans. And I think wesee some sense of the bonds that tie people to parties, certainlythey're lessening more for the Democrats than for the Republicans,but they're lessening more generally. The sense that -- MR.WATTENBERG: That the Democratic Party is -- MR. ORNSTEIN: -- is inbigger trouble than the Republican, but --
MR. WATTENBERG: But they're both in trouble.
MR. ORNSTEIN: -- neither party is in the ascendancy in terms ofcapturing a majority of Americans. The sense that you get here, whichI think is reflected in surveys, is they're all the same, they're allbickering, they're all more concerned about themselves than about therest of us.
And that's why this interesting political dynamic that we haveright now, with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress,where neither the Democratic president in the majority, theRepublican Congress in the majority can benefit from gridlock, from asense that there's more bickering going on, may drive them, becauseof those public attitudes, towards doing something more than theymight otherwise.
MR. WATTENBERG: Andy, what are the political implications of thissort of feeling?
MR. KOHUT: Well, the most simple conclusion you can come to isthat it's very bad news for the Democrats. The Democrats are theparty of government. They represent an activist view of government.And the Democrats can't clearly convey what they stand for becausehave historically stood for government, and that's a difficulty forthem.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. The group participants had some toughthoughts about welfare, tough but perhaps not as tough as you mightthink.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): For the people thathave born into the system and that's all they've ever known -- numberone, can you really blame them because that's all they did know andit's just automatic, here it comes -- they're at peace within thesystem. Why get off the system?
MR. WATTENBERG: (From videotape.) Suppose they had a welfaresystem where they said if a teenage young woman, girl, whatever youwant to call her, has a child out of wedlock, they would cut off hercash welfare benefits, but they would continue with Medicaid and foodstamps and prenatal, all the other stuff. Does that make sense?
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Yes, because theyencourage you -- the welfare system, one thing it does encourage ishaving more children because you get more money.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): I was not working andthrown into the welfare system. I saw people who wanted something fornothing. They don't want to work.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): I don't feel it's ablack and white issue. I think it's -- I think there's generationsand generations that's been on it, and the families are so used toit, so when their kids get grown, they have the same reason to go outand have babies out of wedlock, and it is the domino effect.
MR. WATTENBERG: That's true for whites also, generation aftergeneration?
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Yes.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Oh, yes, for sure.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): They're on it becausethey're frustrated that even if they got a job, they're no betteroff. Then when you get a minimum wage job, then you --most of themdon't have any health care at all.
MR. WATTENBERG: We had an interesting response in this section andin a section we did about crime, where I asked both the panels weworked with whether this was principally a black issue or was it anissue of the whole population? Was this a taboo, that people didn'twant to say it, or is this --is this for real, that this is seen as abroad American problem, not race-specific? Karlyn first.
MS. BOWMAN: Concerns about the welfare system are universal,black, white, rich, poor, young, and old. They think -- Americansthink the system's broke. That's what you heard in your focus group.And they also think it encourages a culture of dependency which hascaused enormous problems for the society, and I think that'scertainly what we heard with one of the speakers there.
At the same time, they're very sympathetic to those people whohave been born into a system that just doesn't work and it justdoesn't get people off welfare.
MR. WATTENBERG: Everett, is there -- there's some phrase for it, ataboo response or something like that, where people won't talk aboutwhat they think.
MR. LADD: Well, there certainly are cases of that kind, but Idon't think that's the case here. There's a widespread sense acrossracial lines that the system is broken in important regards. Andindeed, I thought the Wall Street Journal-NBC survey a couple ofmonths ago, where they had a special sample of welfare recipients,the extent to which recipients accepted a devastating critique of thesystem.
MR. ORNSTEIN: It was a striking survey. You know, they askedpeople, do you think that most of those on public assistance wantsomething for nothing, in effect? Eighty percent of Americans saidyes. When you asked those who had ever had public assistance, whichis about 20 percent of the overall population, a majority of themsaid that they thought a majority of those on public assistancewanted something for nothing. So you really do have a striking changehere.
But people want, as I think these responses suggest, a combinationof a hard-headed approach with some kind of a soft-hearted look atthose, especially children, who have real problems. And if the publicdebate ends up taking a really harsh tone to it in the Congress andwith the White House, I think you'll see some sense of public backingaway from it, saying wait a minute, let's be tough, but don't go toofar.
MR. KOHUT: I agree with all of those things. I think blacks andwhites agree that welfare needs to be fixed. But I think amonglower-middle-income whites, particularly among some independentsectors, white independents, there is a lot of resentment towardblacks about -- on the welfare issue. It's not -- it's not -- this isnot an attitude held equally by blacks and whites.
MR. WATTENBERG: So that there is in some of it a race-specificnotion.
MR. KOHUT: Yes. It's not -- it's really not easy to elicit, andit's not often apparent in a small group of people like that, but ifyou do enough extensive polling and push deeply enough, you'll findamong lower-middle-income white people resentment.
MR. WATTENBERG: Recently there has been a lot of discussion aboutaffirmative action. Here's what the focus groups had to say aboutthat.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Affirmative action hasalmost come back and bit everybody in the rear end, because a lot oftimes there is reverse discrimination because of the affirmativeaction law.
INTERVIEWER: (From videotape.) What's your understanding of whatthey're about? And do you think they're working okay?
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): You mean like settingquotas for hiring?
INTERVIEWER: (FROM VIDEOTAPE.) Is that what they mean?
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): That's what it meanswhere I work. (Laughter.)
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): I think it can causeproblems in the work force where -- and at the people that it's aimedtowards. They become the objects that everyone hates, you know,whether it's a woman, a black or whatever, Hispanic, whateverminority you're talking about. They're the ones that suffer.
INTERVIEWER: (From videotape.) The affirmative action programs arenecessary?
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Their intent iscompletely necessary.
MR. WATTENBERG: Everett, is that a pretty good mix of what you'reall picking up in national samples? MR. LADD: I think so. We've gotthree large programs in the United States -- maybe you can addanother one, but certainly at least three large programs designed insome substantial way to extend opportunity. Americans still want todo that, still want to extend opportunity.
I think Norm's point is absolutely right, that if you're seenbacking away from that goal in welfare reform or with regard to theprime objective of affirmative action, you're in deep trouble. Buttwo of the three programs are in deep trouble with the public,affirmative action and welfare. The third program, education -- I'dsay that's our third big equal opportunity program -- is not in thesame trouble, but it's in a fair bit of trouble on performancegrounds as well.
MR. WATTENBERG: Norm.
MR. ORNSTEIN: It seems clear that what you see in these interviewsand what I think you see more broadly is that people see goodintentions run amok here in programs, that they've gone beyond thegood intentions to imposing solutions that are not fair-mindedsolutions.
And you find even I think a substantial share, albeit not nearlyas great, in the minority community, with some misgivings aboutaffirmative action as it's played out.
What's going to be interesting to see is if we get pressure tobasically move well beyond that goal, beyond the goal of reformingthese programs to make them work the way they were intended, toscrapping them altogether, how that will play in the public, and alsohow it will play, frankly, in the business community that's alreadyintegrated affirmative action very substantially into its way ofoperation. The debate's moving in that direction, and we may get atleast a little bit of a backlash there, but it's going to be a veryinteresting phenomenon.
MR. KOHUT: Yeah. I think we've begun to see some of that inreactions to the 104th Congress. Whether it's affirmative action orit's welfare reform, people want reform, they want changes. Theydon't want the social safety net completely withdrawn. They want amore balanced approach, a more common-sensical approach, a more levelapproach, but they certainly want to continue to try to see theplaying field leveled and to provide a social safety net for people.
MR. WATTENBERG: Karlyn, what about the partisan aspects of thisthing? It is said that the whole new public fight about affirmativeaction is going to be devastating for the Democrats, that theanti-affirmative action people will win this big referendum inCalifornia, et cetera, et cetera. Do you see it playing out that wayin terms of Democrat/Republican?
MS. BOWMAN: I think President Clinton has a problem. I mean, hehas talked about having a task force that will recommend federalapproaches to a new way of thinking about affirmative action, and heis trying to straddle a lot of constituencies within his own party,which I think is going to be very difficult for him.
Right now, it seems to me it's a bit of a plus for theRepublicans. I'm not sure it works out that way in the long run.
MR. LADD: The politics of it is really murky. Americans want toextend equality of opportunity, and if the Republicans are seenpushing too hard in a way that appears to be working against thatgoal, they're in trouble.
The criticism of the programs is that the programs aren't --affirmative action and welfare as they're operating now are not infact extending opportunity.
MR. ORNSTEIN: It's going to be interesting, Ben. Of course, manyof the affirmative action programs originated under Republicanadministrations and were pushed by Republicans. They have to be alittle bit careful about going too far there. Bill Clinton has to becareful about not looking like he is in effect caving into a majorconstituency of his own party.
MR. WATTENBERG: Which is?
MR. ORNSTEIN: Which is the black caucus and the black politicalestablishment. If he, I think, stands up and basically saysaffirmative action as a principle is right, but the way in which wehave implemented it in many cases is wrong and what we're going to dois reform it, and gives some specifics, I think he'll be okay. And inthat case, if there is some criticism from the black politicalcommunity inside the Democratic Party, it will overall strengthenhim.
MR. WATTENBERG: But won't people say that, Hey, Mr. President, inyour first two years in office, you extended the reach of equality ofresults, quotas, proportionalism, whatever. Now, all of a sudden,you're doing one more about-face.
MR. ORNSTEIN: I don't know if we can return to a debate thatbasically says we will move from the notion of basically mandatingoutcomes to opening up opportunities. I'm not sure we can do that.
MR. LADD: Americans have made up their mind on that question. Theywant affirmative action which extends opportunity and doesn't becomequotas, but they think it has become quotas.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right. And finally, here is what the people inDayton were saying about some of the presidential candidates for1996.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): President Clinton istrying to do a good job. I think he's different.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): The politicians muddiedup the water. They started, you know, they had people coming out ofthe woodwork accusing Clinton of adultery and stuff like that, whichto me, who cares? I mean, you know, let's get on with the work of theUnited States government.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): I did not vote for him,and none of the issues that he stood for did I agree with except forthe welfare reform, and that's the only one that he has not done,which was a disappointment.
MR. WATTENBERG: (From videotape.) What do you -- just open-ended-- what do you think of Newt Gingrich? (Laughter.)
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Comedy relief.(Laughter.)
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Thinking about thewhole thing, we've got half a dozen Republicans or some otherDemocrat or a third-party candidate like Ross Perot or Jesse Jacksonor Colin Powell or maybe even Newt Gingrich, thinking of all thepersonalities, who do you favor next year? Who would you like to seeelected president?
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Colin Powell.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Colin Powell.
FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT: (From videotape): Colin Powell.
MR. WATTENBERG: Colin Powell. Norm, what do you think about --Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute, what do you thinkabout Colin Powell? You wrote a piece about him recently.
MR. ORNSTEIN: I wrote a piece suggesting a scenario. To me, whatthis suggests is something that I believe, which is that the opening,the opportunity for a third force is greater than it's been in a longtime. People will -- more people would take a look at that. And Ithink we're going to see some candidates also take a very seriouslook.
What you also see is, there is not going to be a huge base ofsupport for almost anybody out there. And what we know about NewtGingrich in polls I think is demonstrated fairly well here, which is,he's got an enormous amount of enthusiastic support among Republicanactivists. More generally, there is some skepticism about him that hewould have to overcome, and it may take awhile for him to overcomethat.
MR. KOHUT: People are looking for an exceptional, charismaticleader. They want someone who will solve the country's problems, andthe less they know about someone like Colin Powell in the politicalsense, the more appealing he is. And Newt Gingrich, who represents avery specific point of view, gets a harsh evaluation from theAmerican public, and no political figure has ever been electedpresident who gets the kind of reactions that Newt Gingrich gets.
MR. WATTENBERG: You know, we asked the Gingrich questionspecifically, and you heard it, people laughed. It was as if you hadmentioned a cartoon character. I was astonished by that also. What isthat -- Karlyn, what is that laughter about?
MS. BOWMAN: I think they laughed because they didn't think it wasvery realistic. I mean, he has a job to do as the leader of theRepublicans in Congress, and they may approve or disapprove of that,but they really don't think that it's something that leads topresidential timber. And I think that was what that was a reactionabout. I'm not sure it was specifically about Newt Gingrich.
MR. LADD: I think your excerpt missed the country's mood prettysubstantially, though, in suggesting that --
MR. WATTENBERG: Thanks, Everett.
MR. LADD: Clinton is not in deep trouble. I think he's in deep,deep trouble.
MR. WATTENBERG: Who, President Clinton?
MR. LADD: Yes. And I think the polls on the whole do not revealthe extent of the trouble that he's in. I think his position is akinto Carter's at about this time in Carter's administration, and thepolls didn't pick that up either, by the way, because people didn'thate Carter and they don't hate Clinton. And they admired many thingsabout Carter, and while they're different things, they admire manythings about Clinton. But they thought Carter was a failed president,and they think Clinton is a failed president. And he is exceptionallyvulnerable.
MR. KOHUT: The interesting thing about Everett's comment is thatopinion about Bill Clinton has been better this spring than it hadbeen earlier in the year, in part because of Oklahoma, in partbecause he's standing up to the Republicans and people are edgy aboutthe Republicans. But we've seen no movement in the percentage ofpeople who say they are satisfied with conditions in the country.It's still 25 percent in our survey.
MR. ORNSTEIN: Everett is absolutely right, he's exceptionallyvulnerable. But this set of focus groups suggests a couple of otherthings. One is, the opening to a third or a fourth or a fifthcandidate could very well work to his advantage.
And the second thing is, we have a public --
MR. WATTENBERG: To his advantage in the sense that you haveClinton and anti-Clinton, and if you split the anti-Clinton --
MR. ORNSTEIN: Yes. If you have a Ross Perot and if you have acandidate of the extreme conservatives out there, and you may have acouple of others, not all of whom will -- MR. WATTENBERG: JesseJackson.
MR. ORNSTEIN: Jesse Jackson as well. But if you have a couplecandidates like that out there, Bill Clinton may very well beadvantaged.
MR. WATTENBERG: Karlyn, you were going to say something.
MS. BOWMAN: I was just going to comment, I think, about Clinton'sweakness, in response to Andy's point. In a presidential election,it's always compared to what? And of course it's compared to athird-party candidate, but it's compared to a Republican field. And Idon't think Americans have yet focused much on the Republican field,and we don't know how vulnerable that field is overall.
And some people say that Bob Dole, the most well-known of theRepublican candidates, looks like a grownup compared to Bill Clinton,and that that would be an enormous asset. We just don't know yet.It's too early. Americans haven't focused on those Republicans yet.
MR. WATTENBERG: I kind of get the feeling, you know, in thosecartoon movies where the guy is running off the edge of a cliff andthen for awhile he sort of stands there, and then -- there's a delay,and I think that's what you're talking about with President Clinton.But again, it depends on the opponent.
Thank you all. Thank you, Norman Ornstein, Everett Ladd, AndrewKohut, and Karlyn Bowman.
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